Ground Hog Day – Are we in a cookie-cutter era?

In 2014 something like 20 of Hollywood’s 25 big releases are supposedly going to be either remakes or sequels. I know for sure one of them is going to be a movie based on a video game. A plot-less video game, no less. Elsewhere, fewer than half a dozen companies own all of commercial radio. Wonder why you’re hearing the same songs over and over again (assuming you listen to music radio) wondering (if you wonder such things) when, if ever, they’re going to add something new? Not familiar with these points of reference? Perhaps you’ve noticed, then, that (unofficially) about 80% of all literary short stories are written in the same tone, from the same P.O.V. (first), about the same general subjects with the same level of raw irony, profanity, and milk-toast “shock” content to the degree that it’s really pretty difficult to tell one narrative voice from the next.

This is my experience, anyway.

I use the 80% figure as a general estimate. I could be wrong. I mean, hell, I have whole volumes of literary journals on my shelves in which I can’t get through a single story.

Call me jaded. I have a story that I’ve been shopping and of which I am quite proud. It’s nothing like other stories I’ve seen, and while it isn’t as bold and vibrant as some I have seen, it’s also unusual, more silky and ethereal than it is harsh and frenetic. Inspired by the music of Beach House and Deer Tick, it has the feel (to me) of the sweetly nightmarish videos of the former with the straight sentimentality of the latter. I even quote Deer Tick at the opening. Yet, despite being praised for containing “beautiful writing” it hasn’t caught on anywhere. Could this be because it’s a little off center from what is being published right now?

I freely acknowledge that I am teetering toward the edge of paranoia here, and I’m not about to tell publishers how to do their jobs. They have a hard job to do, and shoveling through mounds of unacceptable stories is just part of the burden these poor souls must bear. Still, in looking at the veneer of schlock that permeates our culture, the question remains: are we in a cookie-cutter era?

My favorite line in all of literature (yes, I may have mentioned this before, and I’m sure I will again) happens in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being when Sabina says to Tomas, “in the kingdom of kitsch you would be a monster.” I think of myself, too, as being a monster in the kingdom of kitsch. Give me something off-center, give me unique, dreamy, nightmarish if you have to. Just don’t bore me by offering the expected.

But that’s me. There are practical reasons for a cookie-cutter approach to entertainment. Within a given society there is, at a minimum, about 60% of a population that is unwilling to embrace change and anything new. This section is satisfied most with the simpler, more convenient offerings of its culture, preferring that the bulk of thinking be foisted upon others. This “spoon-feeding” of ideas is replete throughout our culture foremost in our media. Marketing, news, politics, entertainment. Sex and violence and a little more distraction from the presence of the mortal coil. So from the perspective of those making a living off the dollar of the rest of us, 60% of an entire culture is not bad.

Just imagine, however, if 60% of us demanded thought-provoking, critically valid new ideas. Our collective intelligence would no doubt sky-rocket and we as a society, and furthermore as a species, would reach levels of enlightenment in the span of one generation never before seen.

Ah, well, it’s a beautiful thought anyway.

I guess the point is that, regardless of the culture we live in we must do what we do. If kitsch is your thing, and if it makes you happy and successful, then who’s to say it’s wrong? For those of us who resist, who even fight to undermine it, our lot is something different, perhaps success of a different kind. And I suppose it’s what we deserve. Our ideals are, after all, centered on things considered to be anti-success by societal standards. We say, in our words and actions, that wealth and fame and praise and prizes are not important. And are they, in the end? Not in the end they are not. But in the present, well, there is a bit to be said about the lost moments.

What is one to do, finally, except to say that we creative types must make our art the way we do. Some of us can bend and mold our work to suit the expectations of the time. Some of us cannot, or will not, and neither way is right or wrong. When all is said and done, and when we are at the end at last, all we can say is we tried, and in trying we only failed if we gave up.

Do not let this be the legacy – if nothing else – do not give up.

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19 comments on “Ground Hog Day – Are we in a cookie-cutter era?

  1. Smash says:

    Great post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Best of luck with your story, I hope things work out 🙂

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    The economics of traditional distribution channels–whether for print, music, film, or any other media–force the conglomerates to be extremely conservative in what they choose to publish. They have to make back their investment, their overhead, and try to salvage some profit, and they have to do it fast.

    Most chain bookstores give a new book thirty days to make a profit, or they strip the covers and trash them. Film companies judge a film’s performance by the opening weekend. Remember when films were advertised as “Held Over For X Weeks”? Multiplexes don’t hold over–they can’t, the theater is already booked for the next blockbuster.

    So the big companies stick to the familiar. No one wants to be the one who greenlighted an original idea that flops. (Greenlighting a sequel or a remake that flops is different–you get a pass on the original concept because “it sold before” and you get to dump on the production folks.)

    So a publisher is looking for “the next Stephen King” or “the next John Grisham”. Unless you can pitch your book as being just like something that already did well on their lists, the editor may love it, but it won’t fly with the board.

    That’s where self-publishing comes in. We can afford to take risks. We can be new and original because we’re not trying to make rent on Fifth Avenue and salaries for a dozen receptionists. We can wait for a project to take off–the internet never goes out of print. The new voices, the original writers, the artists who aren’t afraid to take chances, we’re publishing our works.

    And the reading public is beginning to take notice.

    • emperort says:

      Great comments, Misha. And you are correct – this is about the bottom line for the publishing professionals. I think what disappoints me is that our species is prone to seek the familiar, the rote, and because of that I think it harms us as people. I guess my wish is like that of world peace, but wouldn’t it be great if people generally craved the new and risky over the familiar and trite?

      • MishaBurnett says:

        I suspect that readers are more open to original ideas than the media conglomerates believe. For a long time the same old thing was the only thing available. Readers have more options today.

      • emperort says:

        Man, yeah, I completely believe this. Readers want some new, exciting stuff. Hence you and David making the observations about the value in “vanity press.”

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Well, I wouldn’t advise using a “vanity press” to anyone–that term is derogatory and refers to con artists who masquerade as publishers. I would recommend self-publishing, which is when an author acts as publisher and either does the work him- or herself or hires professionals to do it.

      • emperort says:

        Thanks for the clarification. Shows my naivete. I’ve been loosely lumping self- and e-pub into v-press. I see what you mean, though.

  3. jcollyer says:

    I would be very interested to read this story.

      • jcollyer says:

        I shall, thank you! I would be very interested to read something new and different. More so because I’m a bit of a cookie-cutter writer myself: I have never been any good at bucking trends or being innovative. It boils down to not being clever enough, I think. I do adventure, linear story lines and simple narrative. I try to make them as good as possible within my ability, but no one is ever going to call me groundbreaking. I am always keen to learn however. I may never be a literary writer but I can’t see how you can fail to improve if you’re open to new things. I shall email you now 🙂

  4. I sometimes join the ranks of the jaded as well. More than once, my novel has been passed over by big publishers because it doesn’t fall neatly into sci-fi or fantasy; it straddles the two genres. I had set out to write a book I’d never read (or even heard of). And I succeeded. The problem is that it’s not easy to categorize.

    But (I’ve been told) while traditional publishers have to appeal to the masses — and, yes, be conservative in their choices to reduce risk — the Era of Self-Publishing is the remedy for monotony. Certainly, giving writers the reins and a road to peddle their tales directly to “the customer” will lead to a wider variety of titles and topics for readers…even as it simultaneously ushers in a deluge of copycat stories.

    Every cliche starts as a clever insight; every tired plot, an innovative idea. I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the popularity and success of Harry Potter. Book 1 was a fun story, but there wasn’t anything like it out on the market (though one could argue that certain aspects and concepts were borrowed from the fiction and myths of yesteryear). Someone finally took a chance on HP — look how many times it was passed over! — and profited by taking the risk.

    And in the years that followed, a million Harry Potter clones “apparated” onto the scene…

    Writing is about making art; publishing is about making money. (That’s why it’s called the publishing INDUSTRY.) Sadly, the cookie-cutter approach — or, at least, banking on genres, tropes, etc. that have already seen substantial success — will always be more cost-effective than extending a contract to an unknown, unproven entity.

    (More on my thoughts on Art vs. Entertainment here: http://david-michael-williams.com/2012/08/03/art-vs-entertainment/)

    The good news is that people bore easily. What is popular fades. Even as we throw down our money for the next Grisham, we crave something new, something unexpected. “The next big thing.” And with so much media out there, so many channels through which to tap into art and, yes, entertainment, we writers have a better shot than any of our predecessors at finding an audience.

    Artists are supposed to push the envelope, pioneer new ground, take chances and question the status quo. It’s not always the glorious path, but I daresay it beats the alternative.

    • emperort says:

      I’ve been slow to embrace self-publishing but you and Misha both present valid arguments in justifying it. And I have friends here who own a publishing company who are interested in working with me as well and I have a project in mind for that. I guess the message here is that bravery is the order of the day and that now is one of the best times to take risks in the publishing world – we’re betting on ourselves and who better to have on our side?

  5. Speaking as one who has taken the hard way. . . Self-publishing is away to be read, but rarely a way to be read with any circulation. The case of 50 Shades of Grey distorts the norm for most writers by playing on the dreaming aspect. (In the end, her millions have come through traditional release.) As to comparing, vanity press is paying through the nose to be printed. Self-pub is paying through the arm. One is predatory, the other self-induced. Self-pub is fun and hard and a learning process. I have no regrets at self-publishing; I learned a lot and got important reader feedback and with sales, spent only a little capital. On the broader issue of industry vs.art, creativity vs bottom line, it is a not a new phenomenon. It is the fluid in which artists have lived and worked for centuries, though digital media have raised the access to self-publishing, particularly in the e-press world. (Just checked my blog from 8/12/09 Art vs.Business to find it has more hits than any other I’ve written, except one; see http://TheTroubleWithWisdom.com) I suggest–IF your work is polished–to try going through traditional publishers first, a long, hard schlog (sp) to be sure. If that can’t find you a home, self-publish and push hard. The other way around is also fine and respectable. . . but get feedback from independent editors first to help learn where your work sits. The expense may save you many drafts and many years.

    • emperort says:

      Great comments. My thoughts align with yours in terms of trying the traditional route first. In this day I think self-pub and e-pub are gaining momentum, slightly slower than when music went digital and bunches of unknown bands were suddenly being heard throughout the underground. Traditionally publishing still maintains the old mystique for now, however, and “real” success in publishing continues to be the purview of that sector. Part of the appeal of traditional publication is that there’s little to no cost up front for the writer. But there is a shift in traditional publication likely caused by the self-pub movement – every writer is now expected to be involved in the process of marketing. Not just involved, but immersed. The bottom line is that publication takes at least as much work as writing the book in the first place.

      • Tom Pope says:

        Yes, we writers should make no mistake. What is called our “platform,” our base of human contacts as a result of our activity gathering fans, is something traditional publishers stress. The most effective base comes from our fame in a related field, usually only available to non-fiction writers–doctors, journalists, politicians, actors, survivors of cataclysm etc.. Writers who live in a room–some might say, dedicated authors–rarely have this kind of base, and publishers know this. Still, they stress it, knowing they are asking writers to perform the rare feat. The amount of work we writers now do and are asked to do by publishers is a drop in the bucket compared to what publishers can and must do as part of their mandate, is a drop in the bucket compared to proper promotion and/or a good review by any literary concern established for that purpose.

        My gut feeling is that this shift in responsibility onto the writer has bled over from other creative arts, particularly the music field, driven only by corporate profit motive. Why do work that hungry artists will do if we give them no other choice? Support for book tours has collapsed, so be prepared to arrange your own venues, dates , transport and lodging. Sometimes you have to pay freight to have your books sent ahead on your tour. Yes, it’s deplorable, but it is the current way of the world. The good news is this corporate malfeasance gives us writers more to use in our stories.

        And an addendum to mainstream publishing from above. . . there are many small publishers who look for good work NOT expected to sell 500,000 copies. They are the entrance ramp for many young/new writers. They, like ourselves, are hoping to break even and keep going, waiting for a breakout book.

  6. T. James, I came across an article about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing and thought you might be interested in reading it: http://writerunboxed.com/2013/08/29/publishings-most-exciting-upheaval-and-you/

    (You can skim past the first few paragraphs…)

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